What are slaves?

Slavery is a state of being or existence where man ceases to be master of his own destiny, it is a situation where an individual becomes property of another to be used and discarded, and for centuries millions were used and discarded, as one would an object. Man from time immemorial subjugates fellow man for his selfish end, through the use of brute force and coercion, thus war became a perfect instrument of obtaining captives that were later made slaves.

Everywhere man had settled slavery had existed, unfortunately, it is made to appear exclusively an African affair which amount to nothing but fiction. It’s a fact that slavery once existed in Africa, as it had in other parts of the world like Asia, Europe, and the Americas. It’s also a fact that chattel slavery never existed in Africa as it had in the Americas, perpetuated by the Europeans who substituted the enslavement of their own race and the natives of the Americas for the African captives made slaves.

Chattel slavery is an intense and vicious kind of slave system, it is the other kind of slavery, the offspring of an individual subject to it automatically becomes a slave. Redemption in most cases was through death and absconding. The different between chattel slavery and ordinary slavery is that, the latter has means or ways of gaining freedom and it did not deny the humanity of the person subjected to it, the former on the contrary, completely denied the humanity of enslaved and offers no way out except through the demise of the enslaved, absconding from bondage, and slave revolt like that of the Haitian revolution.

The following is an excerpt taken from Alex Haley’s “Roots”, it’s meant to portray what slavery was in Africa as compared to chattel slavery in America.


“What are slaves?” Lamin asked Kunta one afternoon. Kunta grunted and fell silent. Walking on, seemingly lost in thought, he was wondering what Lamin had overheard to prompt that question. Kunta knew that those were taken by toubob became slaves, and he had overhead grown-ups talking about slaves who were owned by people in Juffure. But the fact was that he really didn’t know what slaves were. As had happened so many other times, Lamin’s question embarrassed him into finding out more.

The next day, when Omoro was getting ready to go out after some palm wood to build Binta a new food storehouse, Kunta asked to join his father; he loved to go off anywhere with Omoro. But neither spoke this day until they had almost reached the dark, cool palm groove.

Then Kunta asked abruptly, “Fa, what are slaves?”

Omoro just grunted at first, saying nothing, and for several minutes moved about in the groove, inspecting the trunks of different palms.

“Slaves aren’t always easy to tell from those who aren’t slaves,” he said finally. Between blows of his ax against the palm he had selected, he told Kunta that slaves’ huts were roofed with nyantang jongo and free peoples’ hut were roofed with nyantang foro, which Kunta knew was the best quality of thatching grass.

“But one should never speak of slaves in the presence of slaves,” said Omoro, looking very stern. Kunta didn’t understand why but he nodded as if he did.

When the palm tree fell, Omoro began chopping away its thick, tough fronds. As Kunta plucked off for himself some of the ripened fruits, he sensed his father’s mood of willingness to talk today. He thought happily how now he would be able to explain to Lamin all about slaves.

“Why are some people slaves and others not?” he asked.

Omoro said that people became slaves in different ways. Some were born of slave mothers – and he named a few of those who lived in Juffure, people whom Kunta knew well. Some of them were parents of some of his own kafo mates. Others, said Omoro, had once faced starvation during their home village’s hungry season, and they had come to Juffure and begged to become slaves of someone who agreed to feed and provide for them. Still others – and he named some of Juffure’s older people – had once been enemies and been captured as prisoners. “they become slaves, being not brave enough to die rather than be taken,” said Omoro.

He had begun chopping the trunk of the palm into sections of a size that a strong man could carry. Though all he had named were slaves, he said, they well all respected people, as Kunta well knew. “Their rights are guaranteed by the laws of our forefathers,” said Omoro, and he explained that all masters had to provide their slaves with food, clothing, a house, a farm plot to work on half shares, and also a wife or husband.

“Only those who permit themselves to be are despised,” he told Kunta – those who had been made slaves because they were convicted murderers, thieves, or other criminals. These were the only slaves whom a master could beat or otherwise punish, as he felt they deserved.

“Do slaves have to remain slaves always?” asked Kunta.

“No, many slaves buy their freedom with what they save from farming on half share with their masters.” Omoro named some in Juffure who had done this. He named others who had won their freedom by marrying into the family that owned them.


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